Sunday, 24 August 2014

Shorts in the Shower: Prison Extremism

Until this post I’ve pretty much avoided the issue of religion inside UK prisons. That’s not because it isn’t an important issue, it’s more that I’ve been thinking about the best way to approach the subject in an honest and (hopefully) non-judgemental and non-offensive way. Here goes.

Prisons are full of people from all kinds of backgrounds. They are, believe it or not, a pretty wide cross section of our society. Just as in the world outside the prison gates, some prisoners inside hold very strong views on all sorts of issues: political, religious and social. 

Marx: 'opium of the people'
I’ve met militant Marxists and atheists, for whom all religious belief is the ‘opium of the people’ and I’ve met Muslims who would go out of their way to help any fellow con, regardless of his faith or lack of it. No prison wing is complete without its resident ‘Bible basher’ who tries to engage with anyone willing to listen. You soon learn who they are and I tended to give them a wide berth.

The influence of religion in British prisons is closely linked to the fact of the Church of England being the faith ‘established by law’. For that reason, the Prison Act (1952) makes it a legal requirement that “every prison shall have a governor, a chaplain and a medical officer and such other officers as may be necessary (7.1).” For many years the official chaplain was always an Anglican, but where sufficient inmates were recorded as adhering to another denomination, other ministers could be permitted to visit them and provide services. Religion has always been regarded, at least by the prison authorities, as a necessary antidote to criminality.

Always welcomed by cons
In recent years, many establishments have bent over backwards to find suitable ministers to offer spiritual support to prisoners. At one nick we had an impressive range of ministers on offer: Anglican, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Baptist, Muslim, Jewish, Pagan, Buddhist, Jehovah’s Witness and Humanist. Some prisoners would take the opportunity to do a little bit of shopping around by attending various services each week to see which one suited them best and - perhaps less spiritually – whether any of the denominations offered coffee and biscuits afterwards. Catholic rosaries are also much used (even by non-Catholics) as decorative jewellery and you can always find plenty of cons wearing them round their necks.

Prison rosary
Prisons – like universities – do offer rich recruiting grounds for many religious groups. The key problem is that many inmates are highly vulnerable and for this reason they make ready recruits for extremists and fundamentalists from all sides. Many cons are basically very lonely, socially isolated people. Some have no family or friends outside with whom they are still in contact. Quite a few are the products of broken homes or the so-called ‘care’ system, so they lack any support networks. That’s why a bit of kindness or attention from anyone can be so valued - and so easily abused.

During my time in prison I met quite a few chaplains and ministers from a range of faiths and denominations. To be honest, I can’t think of one who was an aggressive proselytiser on behalf of his or her particular group. They all seemed to be decent people who had found a vocation ministering to men who were society’s outcasts. I got to know several of them personally and I have a good deal of respect for the work prison chaplains are called on to do: comforting the bereaved (very common in the nick); listening to cons talking about their many problems – in a way that would drive most screws round the bend – and just being kind and patient with inmates who have learning difficulties or religious manias.

Although I’m not a Catholic, I found most of the visiting priests I met in my capacity as an Insider extremely helpful. They have a very important role to play because of the significant numbers of prisoners who are either Irish or Travellers, or both. Travellers tend to band together into small groups as a survival strategy, but their interests are often ignored. Quite a few have literacy problems owing to disrupted schooling, so they often find it difficult to represent themselves or write applications (apps) to the prison authorities. The Catholic clergy offered them much needed advice, support and assistance.

Open to all, often used by few
When I was in a B-cat prison, I also worked closely with one of the Muslim imams who was concerned about problems followers of his faith were having on wings owing to a very rigid and inflexible management. Again, I found him to be a thoughtful, well-educated man who was keen to give good leadership to Muslim inmates.

Much of what I have learned about the problems posed by radical Islam inside prisons I picked up from one of my close friends at a B-cat. He was a British-born Muslim with a PhD who had formerly served as the imam at a UK mosque. He had previously advised the government on strategies to tackle the radicalisation of the young and he shared a wealth of knowledge about these issues, so I’m happy to pass on some of his insights, along with my own. 

In my experience, the problems with radicalisation and fundamentalism inside prison arise from prisoners themselves who either don’t really understand their own faith or who have converted for all the wrong reasons. I have yet to meet an extremist chaplain, but I have encountered some very fundamentalist cons who regard the official ministers appointed by the prison authorities to be ‘sell outs’ and ‘collaborators’ with a regime they detest.

There are periodic panics about ‘Islamist radicals’ thriving in prisons and these concerns are fuelled both the media and by politicians. A problem definitely exists in some establishments particularly, I’m told, in the high security estate where those convicted of terrorism offences are usually held. The likelihood is that a prisoner who is already very radicalised before he or she comes into custody isn’t going to moderate their views because they are locked in a cell. A few may, but it does appear that concentrating small groups of extremists together in prisons merely provides a hot-house environment in which hard-line opinions can flourish and spread unchallenged.

Muslim prisoner on a landing
However, I think that this issue is just as relevant in lower security jails. The title of this post is based on an experience I had at a B-cat prison in the south of England. Having been to a boarding school, then an all-male university college and the Army, followed by some years as a member of a rugby club, I’m pretty relaxed with the matter of male nudity in changing rooms and showers. But this issue can create potential conflicts in prisons, particularly where there are significant numbers of Muslim inmates.

Although the wing showers were provided with cubicles, those in the gym changing rooms were the older, completely open plan style of wet room: just shower heads around the outer walls. There was no privacy and towels had to be kept on the hooks outside or they’d get soaked. When a group of non-Muslim prisoners, including myself, started using these showers after a gym session, there was uproar. First, we were told in no uncertain terms that Muslims didn’t want to shower with ‘dirty’ unbelievers as this would ‘contaminate’ them before prayers. Second, we were called ‘dogs’ because we weren’t wearing shorts or boxers in the showers. There was something of a stand-off because we were determined to take a shower as by the time we would get back on the wing it would be evening bang-up and we’d have to either use the sinks in our cells for a quick strip wash or go to bed stinking of sweat. 

Sensing the risk of violence, the gym screws eventually intervened in order to ensure that things passed off peacefully. However, the problem simply wouldn’t go away until we – the prisoners – agreed between ourselves that we would take it in turns to finish our gym sessions 10 minutes early so that the Muslims and non-Muslims could shower separately. I’ve since heard from fellow cons in other establishments that there have been similar stand-offs about showers and shorts.

Community support for Muslim inmates
In some prisons there have also been clashes over the use of wing kitchens where more militant Muslims have prohibited the use of bacon or other pork products by non-Muslim prisoners. One non-religious con told me how when he was forced to share a cell with a hardline Muslim inmate he was forbidden from ordering or consuming any non-halal food, was banned from standing up when he used the toilet in the cell and was not permitted to eat or drink during the daylight hours of Ramadan so as not to ‘tempt’ his padmate to break his fast. After a few weeks of this lifestyle he managed to get permission to move cell, but it had been a struggle.

It’s difficult to be sure how many of these conflicts are caused by actual religious belief or practice and how much is merely personal control freakery on the part of the individual prisoners concerned. I’ve occasionally found that the most radical and unwilling to compromise are those who have converted to Islam. Although they don’t come from a Muslim background at all, these prisoners have found something for which they were looking in radical Islam. Perhaps it is the very black and white rules for everyday life that they find so appealing. 

US Evangelical extremists
Of course, this isn’t limited only to Islam. It is a well-known phenomenon in many faiths that recent converts feel that they have to be ‘more Catholic than the Pope’ in their enthusiasm to prove that they have fully embraced their new religion. Years ago, when I was a student at university, we had serious problems with extremist evangelical Christians who seemed determined to make other peoples’ lives difficult and whose methods of evangelism verged on bullying and harassment.

In my view, the danger lies for those converts who have embraced radical religious beliefs in a very abnormal, closed environment, such as a prison. Some of these men are already very damaged and vulnerable, often following years of abuse and neglect as children, so they can experience a very strong need to ‘belong’ to something bigger than themselves, or as an emotional support or protective factor. Among these converts debate or questioning seems to be strongly discouraged and there is more of an atmosphere of a gang that uses religious symbols, than a genuine, supportive religious community. 

Certainly, I know of many cases where outward conversion to a fundamentalist faith hasn’t done anything to stop the new converts from peddling drugs and other contraband – other than hooch – across the wings to other prisoners. I well remember how one of the most vocal hardline Islamists at one nick was caught by prison security with £200 in cash hidden in his boxers, along with numerous wraps of drugs that he had been selling to other cons. I’m not an expert on Islam, but I’m pretty certain that drug-dealing wouldn’t be considered an acceptable activity.    

Radicalism has an impact in prisons
A friend of mine who had been in another D-cat (open prison) related how a group of Islamist radicals had systematically taken over an entire corridor by bullying and threatening non-Muslims to make them move rooms. Although the motive claimed was to ensure that the showers and kitchen at the end of the corridor were kept clean and ‘unpolluted’ by non-believers, he suspected that there was also a strong gang-related undertone to the whole incident.  

I believe that the British prison authorities have been very slow to combat this kind of radicalisation inside prisons because of a fear of being labelled ‘institutionally racist’. However, there is also the issue of how to deal with the problem of vulnerable inmates who get caught up in such movements, as well as the negative impact that these divisions and tensions can cause within UK prisons – especially at a time when there is widespread overcrowding and a chronic shortage of frontline prison staff.

Yet there is definitely a great deal of concern over potential sectarian violence in British prisons. Immediately after Lee Rigby’s murder in May 2013, prison security at the establishment I was then being held in called all former British services personnel up for informal ‘discussions’ about whether we felt safe and to ask us to ensure that there were no reprisals against Muslim inmates by veterans. Fortunately, there wasn’t any trouble, mainly because at that particular prison we had excellent relations with our fellow cons who were Muslim and they were equally as appalled by the horrific murder of Lee as we were.

Prayers in prison
This is where the chaplaincy teams and visiting ministers need to bring back some sense of proportion and balance to their respective faith groups. In those prisons where there is a sizeable Muslim population, the presence of a mainstream, moderate imam as a full-time member of staff would be a welcome start. He should be in position to challenge extremism, as well as providing support for those who genuinely wish to convert for religious reasons, rather than for the misguided attraction of joining a powerful prison gang. The Prison Service is also noticeably short on Muslim staff in both frontline roles on wings and in senior management positions.

My fear is that given the current crisis in the prison system – denied by Chris Grayling and his cohort of yes-men in the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) but nonetheless ongoing – radicals from a range of fundamentalist religious and political backgrounds will find it easier to recruit weaker, more vulnerable inmates, and potentially to exploit them under the cover of more noble motives. Eventually most of these men will be released back into the community and it would be better to combat extremism while they are still inside prisons than try to deal with an ongoing problem on our streets.


  1. I think that any extremism is a bad thing and that religion generally causes more problems nowadays than it solves.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Religion - in all its forms - is a fact of life in prisons. The key issue is the extent to which it's used to manipulate and control weaker, more vulnerable or impressionable prisoners.

      I would agree that all extremism is bad, whether it's religious, political, economic or social. Unfortunately, as tensions rise inside our prisons, I fear that more radical ideologies will be seen as increasingly attractive while the prison authorities and staff lose control and legitimacy.

    2. A few of my friends are Muslims, Ive read "The Quran for dummies" and "Islam for dummies" to try and understand their mindset.

    3. Thanks for your comment. I think that one of the main problems with prison extremism is that - as I point out in the blog post above - some people 'convert' to radical Islam as a way to get membership of a group. This provides protection and mutual support. I also think a lot of radicalism is attributable to converts whose religious education is pretty limited.

      I've known some of these lads personally and I got the definite impression that I knew a lot more about Islam than they did - partially because I worked for some years in Muslim countries. One year I even kept Ramadan with my Muslim mates and colleagues. It was bloody difficult (although I did enjoy the great meals we ate together in the evening!)

      However, in prison quite a few converts to Islam haven't learned Arabic and can't read the Qur'an in the original language (quite a few haven't even managed it in an English interpretation). For that reason, their knowledge tends to consist of what they pick up from chatting with other Muslims.

      Also, some of the prison imams and prayer leaders don't always speak very fluent English themselves. This can prevent them preaching sermons in English that might help some of these lads who come from a non-Muslim background understand more about their new faith from a moderate perspective.

  2. Hi there, I'm new to your blog and just wanted to say that your articles are fascinating! Thanks for sharing your experiences and insights - really interesting and very well articulated! (PS I'm also a huge Leonard Cohen fan!)